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Saved by Coach, Satch Sullinger Begins Legacy as Leader

James Satchel Sullinger was destined for basketball. A quick detour from the game was rerouted by a mentor and he’s never looked back.

James “Satch” Sullinger coached basketball from 1983-2011 at Grambling State, Oberlin College, East High School (Ohio) and Northland High School (Ohio), and is a former administrator with USA Basketball. He was the 2010 Naismith High School Coach of the Year and won the 2009 Division-I Ohio State Boys Basketball Championship at Northland. This is the first installment in our series with him.

James Sullinger was destined for basketball.

He was the son of Harold Sullinger, who played for the Iowa Colored Ghosts in the 1920s and 1930s, and basketball ran in his blood.

“Even though my dad wasn’t really instrumental in my life in the raising part, that gene pool thing is really big,” he said. “With me always being tall and big, people always pushed me toward basketball. They didn’t really have to push me, it was what I wanted to do, but no one was stopping me from doing it. It just became a big part of my life.”

His father was known was “Suitcase Sully” because of his huge hands. Soon that same theme was passed down to James and his brother.

“They said when he walked down the street, it looked like he had a suitcase at the end of his arms, so they started calling him ‘Suitcase Sully,’” Sullinger explained. “With me being his oldest son, I became ‘Satchel,’ and my younger brother Harold Jr. was ‘Brief’ for briefcase. So, you had the Suitcase, Satchel and Briefcase.”

Thus, the persona of Satch Sullinger was born.

Sullinger grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and attended and played basketball at South High School on the south side of town, graduating in 1967. But he made mistakes in the next few years of his life. He frequented the Red Flame, Club Utopia and Joe’s Hole, all bars and clubs on Main Street in Columbus, and sometimes got himself in trouble during his nights out. Sullinger bounced between jobs and turned to a life of crime to make cash, carrying a gun and selling drugs.

satch sullinger south high school 1968
James Satchel Sullinger #52

In his mid-20s, that lifestyle caught up with him, and he was arrested and tried in court.

Pat Penn, the former head coach at Bishop Ready High School in Columbus and state champion in 1971 and 1972, knew Sullinger from his days at South High School. Penn went to speak on his behalf in court, and his testimony helped earn Sullinger an education-based probation, giving him a last chance to turn his life around.

The near-prison experience woke Sullinger up, and he was ready to study at and play for Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, starting college as a 25-year-old freshman. But Capital was just down the street from the nightlife spots Sullinger had spent too many nights visiting, and Penn had different plans for the big man.

Penn had left Bishop Ready to become the head coach at Oberlin College in 1973, and he urged Sullinger to come two hours north to Oberlin, Ohio, a tiny town of a few thousand that wouldn’t tempt him to lose his way again.

“Right then it was like it was fate that he was put into my life, because he said all the things I need to hear at that time,” Sullinger said. “I’ve learned that fate is God’s way of staying anonymous, and God placed him in my life. He made a man out of a ‘man,’ legally grown man, but I wasn’t a man the way I was thinking. Pat Penn was very instrumental in my life.”

Sullinger packed up and moved north and began his undergraduate education well into his 20s. He was at Oberlin College from 1975-78, spending every year under Penn until finally earning his degree.

He said the knowledge he gained while playing for Penn was vital in shaping him into the coach he eventually became.

“He was a motivator, and I learned to become a motivator and a fundamental coach,” Sullinger said. “He played zone, and he believed in the star system. He taught me how to work hard. He taught me how to motivate, how to become part of something that’s bigger than me, but I took it to the next level.”

Sullinger said he took what he learned from Penn and expanded it to create his own coaching style.

“I added fundamentals to it and scouting reports. Pat didn’t believe in those things, even though he’s still to this day the winningest coach in the history of Oberlin College and won two state championships,” Sullinger said. “But they always say the student takes it to the next level from the teacher, and that’s exactly what I did, and I became a very fundamental coach on top of coaching the whole kid.”

Coaching the whole kid became a cornerstone of Sullinger’s coaching philosophy, and the idea helped him understand the impact he could have as a coach. Originally, he studied social anthropology and intended on working with troubled youth after college. But midway through his sophomore year, he realized if he coached, he could reach these kids before they made some of the same mistakes he did.

“I said to myself, instead of going into social anthropology and going back and working with the delinquent kids, if I become a coach, then I could work with the kids before the fact,” he said. “That’s what motivated me to be a coach. It had nothing to do with winning games as much as being an influence in a positive way in the young kids’ lives like Pat Penn was in my life.”

Sullinger’s values were evident in 2008 when his Northland team was slated to play Westerville South in a district semifinal. His squad was 21-0 in the regular season and 24-0 heading into the game, and his son Jared, who went on to play at Ohio State and featured in the NBA for five seasons, was its star.

But Sullinger got word that his son had failed to submit a Spanish assignment and had been placed on academic probation. He stopped Jared before the game, not even allowing him to put on the uniform, and informed him he would not be playing.

Northland lost 67-59, certainly missing Jared’s low-post dominance and consistent scoring. The perfect season and the pursuit of a state championship were over, but the coach made a stand that day, and it’s one he said he would make again.

“We were 24-0, and we finished the season 24-1,” Sullinger said. “We knew then that we had a program that stood for something. That if we were going to hang a banner, we were going to hang a banner that meant something, that you could come in with your kids and your grandkids and be proud of that banner.”

The following year, his Northland team finished undefeated, won the 2009 Division-I Ohio State Championship and finished the year ranked number one in the nation. The same mistakes from a year ago were not repeated.

“The kids stood for something,” Sullinger explained. “Let me tell you something: when kids start holding themselves accountable and start standing up for things, a whole lot of stuff that’s place people don’t realize.”

Four years later, Sullinger attended five different college graduations, most of which for first-generation college grads. That made him prouder than any of the on-court accolades they won together.

“If they were not held accountable and took pride in being held accountable, then none of that could take place,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about to me. Winning wasn’t as important as making men. But when you develop men, winning takes care of itself.”

Sullinger still lives in Columbus with his wife and dogs. His oldest son, J.J., who also played at Ohio State, lives in Columbus, too. You can find the elder Sullinger at Thomas Worthington High School games watching his grandson or at the Starbucks on Market Street in New Albany, enjoying the community he’s spent most of his life in. His experiences in coaching, his view on modern athletics and more will be featured in the next part of our series with him.

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